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Last updated:
July 26, 2002

Astronomy in Antarctica Subject of Teacher Workshop

Consider the popcorn kernel, a solid little bead that becomes fluff when it is heated and popped. One can't help but notice that the original kernel has more weight than the popped one, and wonder what happened to change it. The answer is that moisture escaped from the kernel, making it lighter.

Schoolteachers from four states learned to use popped popcorn and other simple illustrations as innovative science projects to explain the concepts of astronomy to their high school or middle school students at "Astronomy in the Ice," a two-week workshop held at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls this summer. This is the third year it has been offered.

Fifteen participants attended, as well as one lucky UW-RF student who will actually travel to the Antarctic this winter to study astronomy. Jackie Meyer, a junior from New London and a physics major, is a McNair scholar who is assisting with the workshop as an intern. The workshop is taught by UW-RF Physics Professor Jim Madsen, who served in 2000 as a consultant for the project known as AMANDA‹the Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array‹helping to calibrate the international experiment founded by UW-Madison Professor Francis Halzen.

AMANDA is the world's largest detector of the mysterious neutrino, a particle that is almost nothing but may reveal everything about the universe. It has been installed a mile deep in the ice of the South Pole since 1999.

Madsen said the workshop will help teachers to interest students in science and encourage them to choose science as a career. He uses the AMANDA project as the basis for lectures and experiments, because it is an actual scientific discovery project that is relevant to the world the students live in. The experiments he has devised explain complex scientific facts in a way that is easily understood.

"For example," he said, "If we want to explain the abstract particles known as neutrinos, we can use popcorn for a simple comparison.

"In radioactive decay energy disappeared that scientists couldn't explain. The mass was heavier before it was decayed. Scientists inferred that something was missing after decay; that another particle existed that they hadn't detected yet. In their search for what was missin they discovered the neutrino.

"A kernel of popcorn has higher mass before it is popped than after. Moisture inside the corn escapes when the corn is popped, so it becomes lower in mass. In that way it is like radioactive decay. The moisture is like the neutrino," Madsen explains.Similar experiments showed the workshop's teachers some concrete ways to help students understand cosmic rays, statistics, the method used for particle detection and how the detector tracks particles in the ice.

Madsen was assisted at the workshop by UW-Madison Physics Professors Francis Halzen, UW-Madison Research Scientist Matt Briggs, high school teacher Steve Stevenoski from Lincoln High School in Wisconsin Rapids, and graduate students Jodi Cooley, Rob Atkins and David Steele.

Madsen said that Meyer and Eric Muhs, a high school teacher from Seattle who attended the course, will go to the South Pole to participate in the AMANDA project for the upcoming austral summer, which will occur during our winter because it is south of the equator. Funding for their expeditions is provided through the National Science Foundation.

AMANDA was the first stage of the project, and it will run for another few years, according to Madsen. "We are in the final stages of approval for the next stage of experiment, a new detector called IceCube," he said. "If IceCube is approved by the NSF, the experiment will continue for 10 years and will send one or two teachers from K-12, middle school or high school to the Antarctic each year."

Here is a listing of workshop participants by community and high school:


Brown Deer: Brown Deer High School, Mark Mueller
Eau Claire: North High School, Kevin Amundson, Eau Claire
La Crosse: Aquinas High School, Paul Callan
Madison: UW Space Place, Kay Kriewald Milwaukee: Rufus King High School, Dean Colence
Oshkosh: Oshkosh North High School, Tim Milligan
Rosendale: Laconia High School, Jack Markham
Spring Valley: Spring Valley High School, Michele Huppert
Stanley: Stanley-Boyd High School, Lori Hebert
Stevens Point: SPASH (Stevens Point Area Senior High), Tim Wright


St. Anthony Village: St. Anthony Village High School, Paul Lulai


Watsonville: Watsonville High School,Robert Olona


Sammamish: Skyline High School, Rebecca Fowler
Seattle: Roosevelt High School, Eric Muhs
Shoreline: Shorewood High School, Paul Witt

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